After the high-profile successes of Rock Of Gibraltar in Sir Alex Ferguson's colours, racing and football united again yesterday when Funfair Wane, carrying the colours of Kevin Keegan's wife, Jean, gave trainer David Nicholls a rare hat-trick in one of the most competitive sprints of the season, the Ayr Gold Cup.
The three-year-old, a 16-1 shot ridden by his handler's son, Adrian, proved as tenacious a performer as the Manchester City manager was in his distinguished playing days as he battled back to beat The Tatling (33-1) a neck after being headed inside the last half-furlong of the six-furling event. Abbajabba (33-1) came in third, with Attache (14-1) fourth, in a race that was dominated by those drawn on the stands side of the course.
Nicholls' reputation as an expert with sprinters is already well established, but to produce a third successive winner of a contest in which starting position and luck in running count so much is an extraordinary achievement, though not unprecedented. Jack Jarvis pulled it off with Daytona in 1937, Old Reliance in 1938 and, when racing resumed at Ayr after the war, Royal Charger in 1946.
Nicholls will have to go a bit, though, to beat Tom Dawson's seven wins from 1840-46, in the days when the historic race was confined to Scottish horses.
Funfair Wane, bred as well as owned by the Keegans, followed Continent 12 months earlier and Bahamian Pirate in 2000 in taking the prize back to North Yorkshire. The three-year-old is a testament to Nicholls' expertise in freshening up other trainers' cast-offs, having been under the care of Keegan's old World Cup mucker Mick Channon until four months ago.
Part of the charm of the gelding's current home is the facility to allow horses to relax in outdoor playpens, which Channon felt might suit Funfair Wane, a nervy type who was well-regarded enough last term to run against Hawk Wing in the National Stakes.
Nicholls paid tribute to his staff, saying: "A day like this is not just down to me, it is down to the team at home, who work day to day with the horses as individuals."
But there was so nearly a bittersweet result for him. The Tatling, who fought so well, was one of his team until claimed by Milton Bradley in July. A Bradley-trained horse, Brevity, was also runner-up last year.
"When I won the Cup the second time, I said I would need a pinch to make me believe it," added Nicholls. "This time, I think it will take a punch."
At this time of year the two-year-old cream is steadily rising and, in Ayr's Firth of Clyde Stakes, Airwave produced a display that earned her the chance to prove herself against the best of her sex. The filly, judged an unlucky loser when a close fourth in a solid contest at Doncaster ten days previously, quickened away from her field as soon as invited to do so by Chris Rutter and had a comfortable length and a half to spare over Irresistible at the line.
Her trainer and part-owner, Henry Candy, described her as the best two-year-old he has handled, a considerable compliment from a man who once had the superlative Time Charter under his care. But in winning a Listed race Airwave has already exceeded her prececessor's achievements at this stage as, although Time Charter later numbered an Oaks, a Champion Stakes, a King George and a Coronation Cup among her victories, the best she could do at two was win a nursery.
Nature permitting, Airwave's next test will be to take on Russian Rhythm and Ego in the Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket on Wednesday week. "She is beginning to go in her coat," said Candy, "but I hope she will last until then. I have never had a two-year-old like her."
Airwave's sire, Air Express, died early in his stud career and, further in line with the almost inevitable success that comes to a stallion posthumously, the two-year-old Trade Fair, by the recently deceased Zafonic, went into the notebooks as a Classic prospect with a ludicrously easy success in the seven-furlong maiden at Newbury, where the Roger Charlton-trained colt ran right away from his 11 opponents.
None of yesterday's runners in the rather grandiosely tagged Arc Trial at the Berkshire course had Parisian pretentions, but Mark Johnston, the trainer of the determined winner Legal Approach, another son of Zafonic, is hopeful that the three-year-old may rank among the contenders in a year's time.
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